The Christians - Apollinaire Theatre Company
The Christians – Apollinaire Theatre Company
Review by James Wilkinson
The Christians is produced by Apollinaire Theatre Company. Written by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Brooks Reeves. Music Direction and Sound Design: David Reiffel. Design: Danielle Fauteux Jacques.
The first hint that the show is working comes early and it’s an impressive slight-of-hand trick, (not the last we’ll see in the evening). The performance space for Apollinaire Theatre Company’s production of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, will probably be familiar to any of us who spend Sunday breakfast flipping through the television channels, looking for something to watch. Enter the theater and you’re greeted with the plush, carpeted alter of a modern-day megachurch, home turf to figures like Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen. There’s even a choir, decked out in matching robes and singing songs of praise while the pastor and his associates greet the audience members and take their places. The transformation from theater to church is so complete that when the show begins proper and Pastor Paul says “Let us Pray” I found myself closing my eyes and bowing my head as though back in Sunday school, (well-trained, I guess). Once I realized what I was doing, I looked around to see if anyone else had made the same mistake I had. They hadn’t (damn!). But it didn’t take long for the rest of the crowd to get as sucked into the story as I was. Apollinaire Theatre has turned in a subtle and emotionally stirring production that’s well worth a visit to this house of faith.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Hnath’s work this season in Boston. The Huntington recently mounted a production of his newest play, A Doll’s House Part 2. But that production (in my own, humble opinion), was a bit of a flop. Despite an intriguing premise, (Nora, from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House returns home fifteen years later to see the effects of her choices), the script found the characters spinning their wheels, trying to drum up some conflict. By the end of the evening you felt as though you had spent ninety minutes listening to a legal brief. I don’t think that it’s going to be particularly controversial to say that The Christians is a much stronger play, an incredibly witty drama that shows just how far Hnath’s approach to storytelling can go. Where the previous play faltered, this one soars.
The Christians begins with a single action made by Pastor Paul (Michael Poignand), the head of this church we’re visiting. Pastor Paul is a true blue believer who, years ago, started preaching in an empty storefront before gradually building the congregation into the massive industry that it is today. On this day, though, Paul is delivering a very special sermon. He can no longer reconcile the idea that a loving God would send all non-Christians to hell and has decided that his church will be one that does not believe in hell. You might think (as Paul does) that the idea that there’s no chance of us burning for all eternity will be met with joy, but the congregation has questions. What about the Bible? Doesn’t it mention hell? What about people like Hitler? Does that mean he’s in heaven? And what exactly prompted Pastor Paul’s revelation about hell? Is it a coincidence that he’s making this announcement on the day the church has paid off its debts? Paul finds himself unable to adequately answer the questions his flock raises, inciting a schism in the religious community. As the characters begin twisting themselves into knots dealing with the ramifications of Pastor Paul’s sermon, so does the play, and soon we collectively find ourselves pushed into areas we didn’t think we’d be heading.
At the forefront of Apollinaire’s production is a fantastic lead performance in Michael Poignand. As Pastor Paul, Poignand has to do a lot of the play’s heavy lifting both technically (the Pastor probably has about sixty percent of the lines spoken) and emotionally (the production doesn’t work if we don’t believe his arc). The play opens with a long sermon from the Pastor and Poignand works the stage like an old pro. So much of the performance is in the small details, the perfectly set hair, the perfectly pressed suit, the widening grin on his face as he brings out the joy his faith brings him. Poignand manages to nail the cadence of those television preachers, embracing that strange tone the Osteen’s of the world have, pitched with a mixture of enthusiasm and salesmanship. But we can feel that this man isn’t the huckster we usually associate with the stock character. He genuinely believes what he’s peddling and Poignand’s charismatic presence invites theater goers into the story.
However, this isn’t just the journey of one man, but of an entire community. The characters around Pastor Paul may not get as much time front and center, but the actors in those roles come at you with the weight of an emotional wrecking ball. Again, it’s in the small details of their performances. The quivering timber that Alison Meirowitz McCarthy puts into her voice as her Congregant Jenny questions her pastor. The clutched hand that Armando Rivera keeps by his side as he reveals what his faith has cost him. This isn’t a production that looks down on the faithful or looks at them as something to mock. The faith these characters hold is central to their being and when their world views are shaken by their pastor, we can feel just how frightened they are. Christine Power’s Sister Elizabeth spends most of her time sitting silent, legs crossed but eyes always on her husband. When she finally does stand up and speak you feel chasm of sadness that her husband’s actions have opened in her.
Director Brooks Reeves manages to stage the show in a way that’s constantly building towards intimacy. You didn’t even realize how the production has been burrowing under your skin all evening. At the start, with the choir singing and Pastor Paul treating the audience as his congregation, it’s not hard to feel as though you’re within a larger community. By the end of the show, two characters are alone on stage, sitting in a small pool of light, speaking from the heart in tones that suggest a private confession to a priest. The ethereal nature of faith is laid bare for all to see and it’s devastating but also exciting. By taking us to this small point within the human soul, Apollinaire Theatre’s production manages to point to the possibilities for connection that we may find there.
The Christians is produced by Apollinaire Theatre Company at Chelsea Theatre Works February 15-March 9, 2019.